“Whenever possible, you gotta try to see the goings on of life through more eyes than just your own, because that can help you see things more clearly.”
This historical fiction novel takes place in a small southern town, and highlights the mistreatment of black World War II veterans in the years following the war.
The year is 1946 in the town of Birdsong, and Gabriel Haberlin is riding his new bicycle when he is pushed out of the path of a speeding car by Meriwether Hunter. Gabriel thanks Meriwether, a black World War II veteran, for saving his life by getting him a job at his father’s garage. As his friendship with Meriwether grows, Gabriel becomes painfully aware of just how unwelcoming the Jim Crow South is.
This book was an important read aloud for my fifth graders. It opened their eyes to a time period that was new to them, and encouraged them to think about perspective when considering historical events. Students related to the characters, and they begged for “one more chapter” each day.
As we read this book, students had many questions. They wanted to know about the Negro Motorist Green Book, the Battle of the Bulge, and the all-black 761st Tank Battalion. Most of all, they wanted to know why Meriwether had to keep his role in World War II a secret.
Historical fiction is still just that—fiction. At times while reading this book, students struggled with what was real and what was fictionalized. To that end, we decided to use The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA as a jumping off point for learning more about the complexity of life in the south after World War II. Students chose a topic of interest from the book, and are eager to research and learn about these topics. They want to create informational documents for future readers of this book. We are still ironing out what this will look like, but one group of students summed it up it perfectly:
“One hard thing about reading historical fiction is understanding the setting, especially when you don’t know a lot about the time period. So maybe we can help other kids understand the setting of this book when they read it. Not every soldier got a hero’s welcome when they returned home after World War II.”